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Here’s the third call from ‘Rings’

February 7th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

There’s something about being tossed down a well and left for dead that can make a girl really cranky.

Matilda Lutz stars in a scene from the movie "Rings." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. (CNS /Paramount Pictures)

Matilda Lutz stars in a scene from the movie “Rings.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS /Paramount Pictures)

Hence, “Rings,” the third film in an American horror franchise based on a 1998 Japanese feature. The series concerns a spooky black-and-white video, viewers of which are doomed to die seven days after watching it. Like a chain letter, it has to be shared and viewed by another person, otherwise Samara (Bonnie Morgan) emerges from her watery grave on video screens to exact her human toll.

Updated for the viral-video and cellphone era since the last installment in 2005, this time the disturbing symbolic images are widely shared by undergraduates involved in malevolent professor Gabriel’s (Johnny Galecki) research into how the soul migrates after death.

One part never changes, of course. After someone watches the video, his or her phone rings, a girl’s voice hisses “Seven days!” and the fate of the person on the other end is sealed.

At this point, there’s not much shock value when Samara surfaces to commence killing. In fact, at this stage the audience is more likely to give her entrance applause as if she were a beloved musical-comedy star.

Recognizing this, director F. Javier Gutierrez and screenwriters David Loucka, Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman turn up the psychological-thriller elements, focusing on the search for Samara’s origins in the quaint, yet evil, hamlet of Sacrament Valley.

Julia (Matilda Lutz) and boyfriend Holt (Alex Roe) make efficient use of their seven days to figure out that the birds, ants and so on in the video images are a message from Samara identifying her killers and the people who made her life miserable before that.

The duo set off on a compassionate search that leads them to Samara’s presumed tomb, a deconsecrated church, a story about a flood and rustic plaid-clad locals, all of whom harbor secrets.

Occult overtones or, in this case, ringtones, routinely move this type of film into the adult range. Yet “Rings” is clearly aimed at teens, with gory sights kept mostly in check. So many parents may consider it acceptable for mature adolescents.

The film contains occult themes, some violence but with little blood, brief drug use and references to nonmarital sexual activity. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

 

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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‘Lion’ a hauntingly poignant, uplifting film

February 7th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

The incredible true story of one orphan’s 20-year odyssey to find his way back home roars to cinematic life in “Lion.”

Sunny Pawar and Deepti Naval star in a scene from the movie "Lion." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. . (CNS/The Weinstein Company)

Sunny Pawar and Deepti Naval star in a scene from the movie “Lion.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. . (CNS/The Weinstein Company)

Taken from his native India as a boy, Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel) grew to manhood in a loving adoptive family in Australia. But he was haunted by his lost childhood and the beloved mother (Priyanka Bose) he left behind. His 2013 memoir (written with Larry Buttrose), “A Long Way Home,” inspired this poignant and uplifting film, directed by Garth Davis.

The story begins in 1986 as a lively tale of two brothers, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older sibling Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). Life is hard in rural India, and they scavenge for items to resell so they can buy food for their family.

The brothers adore their mother, Kamala, who ekes out a living as a manual laborer, clearing rocks at a nearby quarry.

One night, Saroo follows Guddu to the railway station in search of work. They become separated, and Saroo, wandering into an empty train car, falls asleep.

When Saroo awakens, the train is moving, and he is locked inside. After 1,500 kilometers, the train finally comes to a stop, in the bustling metropolis of Kolkata (then still called Calcutta).

Saroo is terrified by this unknown place teeming with humanity. Unable to remember his family name and home village, he wanders the streets alone, barely escaping abduction.

Months pass before Saroo comes to the attention of the authorities. They advertise his case to locate his parents, but to no avail. So Saroo is put up for adoption, and heads to Australia in the caring embrace of Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley.

Fast-forward two decades, and Saroo (Patel) is now a well-adjusted and ambitious young man, enrolled in hotel management school along with his cute girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara).

He stands in contrast to his stepbrother, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), whom the Brierleys also adopted from India, shortly after Saroo. Mantosh suffers from mental illness and can be moody, even violent. The patience and unconditional love offered by his foster parents are inspiring.

Meanwhile, Saroo meets peers who are also of Indian descent, and begins to wonder about his earlier life. Curiosity turns to obsession, and with the help of the internet, Saroo sets out to retrace his long-ago train journey and pinpoint his native village.

“I have to find my way back home,” he tells Sue, who is supportive of his quest.

A five-hankie weepie that packs an emotional wallop, “Lion” emerges as a celebration of family. It also sends a strong pro-life message by underscoring the joys and merits of adoption, and showing that a child can be shared and loved equally by two sets of parents.

Unfortunately, Saroo and Lucy’s relationship is portrayed in a manner that precludes endorsement of “Lion” for younger viewers. That’s a shame because teens, at least, might otherwise have profited from this touching movie.

In a postscript, “Lion” highlights the disturbing reality that more than 80,000 children go missing in India each year, with most undoubtedly denied the happy ending Saroo enjoyed.

The film contains mature themes and two brief nongraphic nonmarital sex scenes. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

 

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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‘Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’

February 3rd, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , , ,

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Catholic News Service

“Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” is the sixth and presumably last in a series of video game-based films that began back in 2002.

William Levy stars in a scene from the movie "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. (CNS photo/Sony)

William Levy stars in a scene from the movie “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/Sony)

The movies have always kept their connection to the console on open display. This makes them ideal for those who like their zombies, shootouts and occasionally gory incidents of flesh-eating served up with a minimum of story line or dialogue. For anyone beyond the fan base, though, frustration and a possible headache awaits.

Alice (Milla Jovovich, as ever), squeezes into her famous black tights to battle the undead as well as the evil Umbrella Corporation led by the diabolical Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen). Her sidekick, Claire (Ali Larter), provides occasional assistance.

Director and writer Paul W.S. Anderson (Jovovich’s real-life husband) provides not so much a plot as a goal, as if this were a game level.  Alice has 48 hours to find the airborne antidote to the T-virus. A pandemic of said malady has turned the planet, especially the remnants of Washington, into a dystopian moonscape populated by flesh-craving zombies.

Alice herself had the T-virus. But it seems to have been just her cup of T, since she somehow gained superpowers from her illness.

On this adventure, she fights Dr. Isaacs with whatever weapons come to hand, leads skirmishes against the zombies (who prefer to run in packs), and has occasional encounters with the Red Queen (Ever Anderson), a digitized younger version of herself who provides instructions and reminds the audience what Alice is supposed to be doing.

This series, while well short of classic, has nonetheless proved quite durable. And Jovovich puts in the effort to keep Alice a moral force of a sort. She does, after all, stay grimly focused on the collection of villains she’s up against.

The film contains gun, knife and martial-arts violence with some gore and fleeting foul language. The Catholic News classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R.

 

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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‘Gold’ mines mother lode of vulgarity

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Catholic News Service

Little glitters in “Gold.” To put it another way, there’s a sour taste to this loosely fact-based story that a strong performance from Matthew McConaughey in the lead role fails to dispel.

Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramirez star in a scene from the movie "Gold." The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. (CNS photo/Weinstein)

Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramirez star in a scene from the movie “Gold.” The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. (CNS photo/Weinstein)

McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a scrappy prospector in 1980s Reno, Nevada. With the stock of the company he inherited from his father and namesake (Craig T. Nelson) selling for pennies, Wells resolves on a last roll of the dice.

Inspired by a dream, he travels to Indonesia, where he joins forces with sophisticated, but equally down-on-his-luck, geologist Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez). Together, they brave the jungles of Borneo and, after a number of setbacks, including a near-fatal bout of malaria for Wells, claim the largest gold strike of the decade.

But all, of course, is not as it appears. In fact, Wells’ roller-coaster ride of good and bad fortune has only begun.

With his hairline receding and his middle paunchy, Wells, who displays a fondness for hanging out, quite literally, in his tighty whities, embodies the film’s seedy atmosphere. McConaughey endows him with smoldering ambition. Yet, though a striking figure, Wells is not a particularly sympathetic one.

A low moral tone in the boardroom, moreover, is matched by Wells’ ongoing but unhallowed bedroom relationship with his live-in girlfriend, a furniture saleswoman called Kaylene (Bryce Dallas Howard).

She’s meant to be Wells’ ethical compass, warning against the machinations of the numerous Wall Street types, led by the aptly named Bryan Woolf (Corey Stoll), who are just waiting to take advantage of him. Despite her fidelity to Wells, though, neither of them so much as mentions a stroll down the aisle or a visit to the justice of the peace.

Add to those factors the mother lode of vulgarity with which screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman embed their script, and it becomes clear that director Stephen Gaghan’s salute to entrepreneurial grit is unfit for most.

The film contains cohabitation, nongraphic nonmarital sexual activity, rear and partial nudity, frequent use of profanity, pervasive rough and crude language and a couple of obscene gestures. The Catholic News Service classification is L, limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R, restricted.

 

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

 

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‘The Resurrection of Gavin Stone’

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Catholic News Service

The parable of the prodigal son gets a soapy Hollywood treatment in “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone,” a faith-based comedy-drama.

The eponymous character (Brett Dalton) is a washed-up former child star whose bad-boy antics land him in big trouble during a visit to his hometown in Illinois. Sentenced to perform 200 hours of community service and unable to leave the state, Gavin reluctantly moves back in with his estranged father, Waylon (Neil Flynn), a carpenter (hint, hint).

Gavin’s community service is at an evangelical Christian megachurch run by Pastor Allen Richardson (D.B. Sweeney). “We really do believe in second chances here,” the pastor says.

Naturally, Gavin is a fish out of water and unused to cleaning bathrooms.

Fortunately, there is an outlet for his creative energy. The church is rehearsing a Passion play for Easter, and the ragtag group of volunteer actors could use some inspiration.

The production’s comely director, Kelly Richardson (Anjelah Johnson-Reyes), who happens to be the pastor’s daughter, is suspicious of the flashy newcomer. All actors must be professed Christians, so Gavin pretends he is saved.

“I’ve had the passion of the Christ for a couple of years now,” Gavin quips.

Before you can say “Alleluia!” Gavin is cast in the lead as Jesus, sheds his narcissism, and begins to see the light, as per the film’s title.

Dallas Jenkins directs with sincerity from a predictable but non-preachy script by Andrea Gyerston Nasfell that offers lessons in forgiveness and redemption suitable for all ages.

The film contains a nongraphic portrayal of the Crucifixion. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I, general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG.

 

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Pet-lovers will revel in charming ‘A Dog’s Purpose’

January 26th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

While cats are said to be blessed with nine lives, the clever canine at the center of “A Dog’s Purpose,” voiced by Josh Gad, guides us through his adventures over four eventful lifetimes. Repeatedly reincarnated, he (and, for one stint, she) returns in the guise of various breeds and encounters a range of human caregivers.

Dennis Quaid stars in a scene with a dog named "Buddy" in the movie "A Dog's Purpose." The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. .(CNS photo/Universal)

Dennis Quaid stars in a scene with a dog named “Buddy” in the movie “A Dog’s Purpose.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. .(CNS photo/Universal)

Although the concept of recurring earthly existences is kept strictly confined to the world of animals, the New Age-style philosophizing the four-legged protagonist engages in along the way may strike some viewers as a bore. That’s offset, though, by his droll, dog’s-eye view of the world.

During the first of his visits to the planet, as a golden retriever, he’s rescued from a dangerous situation and adopted by 8-year-old Ethan Montgomery (Bryce Gheisar). Ethan’s sympathetic, but unnamed, mom (Juliet Rylance) welcomes this addition to the household, and helps convince his reluctant (and equally nameless) dad, played by Luke Kirby, to accept the pooch, whom Ethan dubs Bailey.

Bailey becomes Ethan’s inseparable companion as the lad grows into a high school football star (KJ Apa) and finds true love with Hannah (Britt Robertson), a girl he meets at a fair. Ethan’s bright prospects are further burnished by winning a college athletic scholarship. But his father’s worsening alcoholism casts a pall over his life and eventually threatens his future.

While his bond with Ethan proves the most enduring of his relationships with humans, during other intervals Bailey first serves as a police dog called Ellie and later becomes a Corgi named Tino. Ellie does her best to comfort her lonely trainer, widowed Chicago police officer Carlos (John Ortiz), and Tino helps to liven up the stagnant social life of his companion, pining single gal Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste).

Pet lovers will revel in director Lasse Hallstrom’s slight but charming screen version of W. Bruce Cameron’s best-selling 2010 novel. Parents will be pleased to find the movie free of any genuinely objectionable elements.

Grown guardians also will want to note that some sequences are too potentially frightening for the smallest pups.

Those inclined to be cynical may balk at bucolic scenes vaguely reminiscent of a TV ad for hay fever medicine. Still, a good-hearted romantic wrap-up matching characters played by Dennis Quaid and Peggy Lipton succeeds in keeping things cuddly for all but the most jaundiced.

The film contains mature themes, including alcohol addiction, possible cohabitation, some stylized violence with brief gore, scenes of peril and light scatological humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II, adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG.

 

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

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‘XXX: Return of Xander Cage’

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Catholic News Service

Somewhere behind the macho posturing that predominates in the action sequel “XXX: Return of Xander Cage,” there’s a plot and a back story. 

Viewers are unlikely to care about the former and will have to be long in the tooth to recall the latter since this is the third in a series of films that began with 2002’s “XXX” and hasn’t been added to since 2005.

Kris Wu, Ruby Rose, Rory McCann and Vin Diesel star in a scene from the movie "xXx: Return of Xander Cage." (CNS /Paramount)

Kris Wu, Ruby Rose, Rory McCann and Vin Diesel star in a scene from the movie “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.” (CNS /Paramount)

A fine wine this franchise is not. So sorting out what it was that Samuel L. Jackson’s character, NSA agent Augustus Gibbons, was doing way back in the first George W. Bush administration feels like dusty work.

Basically, we gather, he was serving as the impresario of what would become a top-secret, hush-hush, eyes-only little band of off-the-record operatives. The group takes its orthographically repetitive name not from a porno theater’s marquee, but from a tattoo on the back of the neck of its first and leading member, Xander Cage (Vin Diesel).

After a dozen years in seclusion, pretending to be dead, Cage comes out of retirement at the behest of CIA bigwig, and perpetual sourpuss, Jane Marke (Toni Collette). Marke, it seems, has a lot to pout about since some rogue colleague has gotten hold of a device capable of turning every satellite in the sky into a destructive earthbound missile.

Cage proceeds to shoot, skateboard and smart-mouth his way through director D.J. Caruso’s pedestrian movie. He’s backed by expert sniper Adele (Ruby Rose), Tennyson (Rory McCann), a Brit who seems to have taken one too many hits to the head on the rugby field, and a DJ named Nicks (Kris Wu).

Because, after all, when you’re out to save the world you do need to have your own disc jockey in tow, no?

Donnie Yen plays shady martial arts master Xiang, who starts out as Cage’s principal adversary on the chase. Like some of the other black hats, though, including Cage’s sultry flirt interest, Serena (Deepika Padukone), Xiang is not necessarily the villain he initially seems.

“Kick some (posterior), get the girl and try to look dope while you’re doing it,” intones Jackson in what passes for this sub-Bond picture’s worldview. For Cage, fulfilling the second of those admonitions means not only having meaningless sex with one gal, but an unseen encounter with a half-dozen others.

Thus, though it skims over the blood flow as innumerable extras bite the dust, its fleeting but unwelcome presentation of intimacy as a team sport makes Cage’s latest adventure unfit for most.

The film contains much action violence, some of it harsh, brief gore, strong sexual content, including semi-graphic nonmarital activity and off-screen group sex as well as references to aberrant behavior, a couple of profanities, a few milder oaths, a single rough term and frequent crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is L, limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

 

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

 

 

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TV Review: HBO’s ‘The Young Pope’ is cartoonish and offensive

January 20th, 2017 Posted in Movies, National News Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

Behind the opening credits of “The Young Pope,” a naked baby boy crawls over a sea of infant mannequins, and a man dressed as the Roman pontiff emerges at the other end.

As bizarre as that may sound, the controversial, provocative new miniseries from pay-cable channel HBO only gets stranger from there.

Jude Law stars in a scene from the HBO television drama series "The Young Pope." (CNS photo/HBO)

Jude Law stars in a scene from the HBO television drama series “The Young Pope.” (CNS photo/HBO)

The 10-episode program premiered Sunday, Jan. 15, and will air Sundays and Mondays through Feb. 13, 9-10 p.m. each night.

As viewers might expect from an HBO presentation, “The Young Pope” contains strong, often gratuitous sexual content, nudity and profanity. As such, it’s exclusively suitable for a restricted adult audience, all the more so since these elements are mixed in with subject matter sacred to Catholics.

Perhaps best known for his Academy Award-winning 2013 film, “The Great Beauty,” Italian director Paolo Sorrentino helms the series, for which he was also the principal writer.

In the opening episode, a papal conclave delivers a surprising outcome as the 47-year-old archbishop of New York, Cardinal Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) becomes Pope Pius XIII, the first American pontiff. Mistakenly believing he would be able to dictate policy to this inexperienced newcomer, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Vatican’s secretary of state, manipulated the vote in Belardo’s favor.

Pius immediately signals that he’s going to be his own man, however and a different kind of pope as well. He does so most dramatically by his choice of a nun to serve as his chief adviser.

Having lost his parents at age 7, Lenny grew up in an orphanage at which Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) worked. There, she raised him and another boy, the future Cardinal Dussolier (Scott Shepherd), as her sons. Now, Pius helicopters her into the Vatican so he can rely on her for guidance.

This back story is implausible in two respects. American children growing up without parents in the 1970s wouldn’t be sent to orphanages; they would be placed in foster care. Sister Mary’s religious order, moreover, wouldn’t have permitted her to raise children as though they were her own.

Pius also signals a new direction when he delivers his first address to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Visible only in silhouette, he declares, “I am closer to God than I am to you, and, if you want to see me, go see God first.” When someone shines a green laser light in his face, he snaps, “How dare you shine a light in your pope’s face?”

Playing on the fact that many younger Catholics, including priests, tend to be conservative, idealizing the church before the Second Vatican Council, Sorrentino has crafted a simplistic caricature of them, a stick figure wholly lacking in subtlety, albeit a self-contradictory, even paradoxical, one. Pius is the anti-Francis, yearning for the restoration of items like the papal tiara and the “sedia gestatoria,” a portable throne on a platform carried by a group of attendants that was last used in 1978.

Pius’ theology is equally unsympathetic. Evangelization? “Been there. Done that,” he remarks.

“And reaching out to others? Time for that to stop.”

This is also a pope who can’t function without Diet Cherry Coke Zero, coffee and cigarettes. Petulant and vindictive, he makes a mockery of confession by declaring, “I don’t have any sins to confess… My conscience doesn’t accuse me of anything.” The protagonist of “The Young Pope” is, in brief, a jerk.

As irksome as many Catholics will find all of the foregoing, Sorrentino ups the ante to the level of outrage with a dream sequence in which Pius urges an adulating throng to have abortions, promote euthanasia and enjoy free love. If that’s somehow meant to be thought-provoking, it registers instead as patently and pointlessly offensive.

Saddled with a cartoonish view of the church, and driven by the urge to be edgy, “The Young Pope” repels more than it engages.

 

By Chris Byrd, a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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‘Split’ delves into multiple personality prognosis

January 20th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

“Split,” the latest psychological thriller from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, posits that victims of childhood sexual abuse are not only prone to dissociative identity disorder, split personalities, but also that each persona can have unique physical characteristics.

Anya Taylor-Joy stars in a scene from the movie "Split." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults.  (CNS photo/Universal)

Anya Taylor-Joy stars in a scene from the movie “Split.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/Universal)

In addition, Shyamalan suggests that victims of the condition have hidden strengths that may be advanced on the evolutionary scale. That’s typically an excuse to lard on special effects and stunts, but not here.

Shyamalan’s not out to make anyone think too deeply about this prognosis. He prefers to couch the story in the efficient tropes of a cheese-ball teen-abduction drama, using a reliable scream queen, Anya Taylor-Joy, as a lure. The film does not veer in the direction of exploitation, however, making it possibly suitable for older adolescents.

His devotees will recognize Shyamalan’s continued exploration of the concept of the immortal soul, which began in 1999 with “The Sixth Sense” and continued with “Unbreakable” the following year.

Shayamalan’s villain, Kevin (James McAvoy), abducts three teen girls, Casey, Claire and Marcia (Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula), in suburban Philadelphia and whisks them away to what appears to be a subterranean lair, but is later shown to be an underground warren of rooms at a zoo.

Kevin’s motives are not clear. It turns out he’s the frightened host of 23 other personalities, of whom we see a cheerful 9-year-old boy, a prissy British woman, a fey clothing designer and an angry thug. There’s also a 24th personality he particularly fears, which he calls The Beast.

Kevin, when he’s out and about, seeks help from a psychologist, Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She’s aware that she’s seeing only part of a very complicated puzzle and that Kevin was abused by his unstable mother as a child. But she doesn’t know about the abductions.

Casey, it turns out, is best equipped to deal with Kevin since, as we are shown in discreet flashbacks, she was molested by an uncle at an early age, and the abuse continued for years after the death of her father. The other two girls are mostly just fodder for escape attempts and Kevin’s many threats and murderous intentions.

So from early on, “Split” follows the familiar pattern of teen girls in peril, with a general “moral” about what doesn’t kill you making you stronger, in this case, amazingly stronger.

The film contains gun and physical violence with some gore, mature themes, including sexual abuse, and fleeting rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

 

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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‘20th Century Women’ presents plotless collection of whimsey

January 19th, 2017 Posted in Movies Tags: , ,

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Catholic News Service

The moral compass in “20th Century Women,” writer-director Mike Mills’ rambling, unfiltered drama, loosely based on his adolescence in 1970s Santa Barbara, Calif., is not one of the characters. Rather, it’s President Jimmy Carter.

Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig star in a scene from the movie "20th Century Women." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults.  (CNS photo/A24 Films)

Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig star in a scene from the movie “20th Century Women.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. (CNS photo/A24 Films)

Specifically, the film makes use of Carter’s sermon-like “Crisis of Confidence” address, usually mislabeled as his “malaise” speech. In it, he admonished America: “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.”

This drones out of a TV set with the wallop of a Shakespearean soliloquy. The principal characters up to that point have been indulging themselves as if their lives depended on it, only they’ve been calling it self-realization. They’re suitably chastened, if only momentarily.

Overall, the movie is more a nearly plotless collection of whimsy than a fully realized story. So whatever insight Carter provides quickly evaporates.

Mills takes an affectionate look back at his world, circa 1979, with well-meaning if slightly confused women attempting to steer his stand-in, 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), in the general direction of sensitive adulthood with their nascent feminist ideals as their guide.

They rely heavily on the self-help literature of the time. All the adults, even the ones engaging in nonmarital bedroom activities, are intensely curious about sex but don’t derive much pleasure from it. Instead, they find it eternally perplexing.

Dorothea (Annette Bening), Jamie’s divorced mother, prides herself on being open-minded but retains a faint sense that romance was better decades earlier. As Jamie keeps explaining to others, “She’s from the Depression.”

Dorothea has the notion that Jamie will become a better man if he’s advised by his 17-year-old friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), who has nonsexual sleepovers with Jamie, and 24-year-old Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the photographer and punk-rock devotee who rents a room in their ramshackle Victorian house, a structure that’s in a perpetual state of renovation.

Jamie helps Julie through a pregnancy scare and Abbie through a bout with cervical cancer that she fears will leave her unable to bear children. Dorothea, meanwhile, chain-smokes, explaining that she’s unlikely to come down with a fatal disease from it, since she began when smoking was considered fashionable.

There are several visits to a grungy rock club. And lengthy discussions of the quality of groundbreaking bands are mingled with talk of humanity’s role in the cosmos as well as the responsibility men bear toward women.

Everyone, including William (Billy Crudup), the handyman, who is occasionally drawn into the sexual situations, is determined to make moral decisions in the face of whatever obstacles they encounter. All this makes “20th Century Women” a road trip in the company of pleasantly sensitive, albeit ethically clueless, companions. If only they had the vaguest notion of their destination.

The film contains marijuana use, brief upper female nudity and lengthy dialogue about sexual matters, including allusions to nonmarital activity. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R, restricted.

 

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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